Ties That Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences


This review of Sarah Schulman's Ties that Bind: Familial Homophobia and its Consequences was broadcast on The Old Mole Dec 7, 2009.

Schulman is known for her novels, plays, non fiction, and activism, and the Utne Reader named her one of this year's Visionaries who are changing the world. For a brief summary of Schulman's points, I want to quote the fabulous Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, editor of the collections Nobody Passes: rejecting the rules of gender and conformity and That's Revolting: Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation. Sycamore writes,

"Ties That Bind exposes homophobia as a practice rooted in family structures, from abuse of children to exclusion of adults. This pattern extends to the cherished liberal value of “tolerating” queers as if they were wasps at a family picnic. Author Sarah Schulman boldly declares that visibility is a failed strategy for cultural change. Gay people are more visible than ever, but “the hatred and overt campaigns against us, ranging from commodification to constitutional amendments to dehumanizingly false representations in popular culture, have intensified and become more deliberate.” Schulman’s solution is third-party intervention. If your parents direct you not to bring your lover to a family reunion, it’s time for your sister to demand that your lover be included. If commercial publishers refuse to print lesbian work, straight best-selling authors should protest. Ties That Bind argues that this type of allegiance is far more important than gay access to problematic institutions like marriage. Unfortunately, the gay establishment has abandoned challenges to structural homophobia in favor of the fight for gay marriage, a shift Schulman calls “a sign of spiritual exhaustion . . . the white flag of surrender” to the status quo."

Sycamore's review distills some of the best points in Schulman's book, and it's worth meditating on these and other insights of Ties that Bind, even if Schulman's radical analysis is sometimes weakened by apparent lapses into liberalism.

While many people might say that things are improving for queer folks, Schulman suggests that the same acts have much more negative meaning today than they would have had 40 years ago, when heterosexists and homophobes might just not have known any better.

She recognizes the difficulty of, for instance, getting your sister to demand that your lover be included in the family reunion. More particularly, she notes that the difficulty of that project lies not just in the possibility that your sister hates or fears you, but in the likelihood that your sister can use your parents' homophobia to enhance her own status in the family.

Homophobia, Schulman argues, is not simply a matter of learned conformity or fear of the repercussions of dissention. Instead, it's a "strategized, customized series of decisions" that "makes heterosexuals feel better about themselves." "What is most difficult to face but increasingly obvious as gay visibility provokes containment, but not equality, is that homophobes enjoy feeling superior, rely on the pleasure of enacting their superiority, and go out of their way to resist change that would deflate their sense of superiority." "In short, homophobia is not a phobia at all. It's a pleasure system."

In calling for people to intervene when queers are shunned, excluded, scapegoated, or otherwise discriminated against, then, Schulman is asking straight people to give something up. She writes,

"Oppressed people, . . . unfairly excluded from full participation, cannot have their rightful place until the people who exclude them experience a diminishment of their own access and power. . . . Gay people's exclusion is predicated on straight people's privileges. Only if they have fewer privileges will there be less exclusion. So what's in it for them? Nothing."

Put in that way, Schulman's argument makes it hard to see why straight people would ever intervene in homophobia, why white people would work against racism, why men would stand up for women's rights.

Yet, as she acknowledges a few pages later, "there are individuals in all situations who do take responsibility" to "judge and act ethically." What's in it for them is not just the satisfaction of acting ethically, but the possibility of creating a world in which resources and recognition are equitably distributed, in which no one's security depends on someone else's exclusion, and in which full participation is possible for all—that is, on changing the nature of what it is we're all participating in.

At many points in the book, Schulman makes clear that she looks toward much wider changes in the social order. But the focus in Ties that Bind is more psychological than material, and the concentration on homophobia slights other, potentially intersecting forms of oppression, attending to them chiefly for the analogies they offer. The book's use of personal anecdote and its emphasis on acceptance within families of origin intermittently implies an assimilationist perspective and downplays more institutional or structural critiques.

Schulman calls for "activism within the psychotherapy industry for ways to confront the sickness of homophobia in therapeutic terms. Families should be able to be court-ordered into homophobia treatment programs."

Similarly, in her discussion of gay marriage as a "sign of spiritual exhaustion" she notes that some married relationships, straight and gay, look pretty frightening. "Relationships keep the social order," she writes, "but what about when the social order [needs changing]? When it is social imperative, convenience, and shallowness that cement the bond, do we have to say 'Mazel Tov'?"

Conversely, however, she also argues that "Once individuals learn that no one cares how their lover is treated and also that no one cares how they themselves behave, they too can act out their fear and anger on the same person being scapegoated by the culture, the person before them. If there was gay marriage, perhaps this would be somewhat reduced. . . . If gay people know that the law cares about how they treat their lover, perhaps they would be slightly kinder." Schulman imagines that her "legal wife . . . wouldn't be able to just stop speaking to me one day; she'd have to negotiate something, say a few words. The law would mandate it. The law would care, and I think that would be a good thing," Schulman writes.

While Schulman is explicit about her lack of enthusiasm for gay marriage, and her preference for community solutions to reactive or internalized homophobia as well as to heteronormative homophobia, she leaves open the possibility of relying on the legal system for changes that she hopes to see. We might call this approach "nuanced," as Schulman does, but it is less forceful and less materialist than the positions advocated by Sycamore, Yasmin Nair, Ryan Conrad, or other queer left critics of the marriage movement.

Still, in Ties that Bind, Schulman makes a strong case for the value of third party intervention, whether personal or institutional, demanding that we learn to interrupt homophobia.

Familial, societal, and cultural homophobia is unjustified, and "Change lies with third party interventions to create a critical mass of consequences for the perpetrators of shunning, scapegoating, and bullying. Third parties have the responsibility to tell families, governments, cultural arbiters, and ex-lovers that they can no longer scapegoat the gay person . . . . " To say "nothing while your friend's family or lover or society or cultural institution shuns and scapegoats her is to participate in the process."

The New Press supplied me with a review copy of the book, but if you want your own copy, you can order it through In Other Words: Women's Books and Resources. If you're a Multnomah County Library cardholder, you can suggest that they purchase Sarah Schulman's Ties that Bind: Familial Homophobia and its Consequences.


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